One of the bigger adjustments for Ian after returning from active duty in Iraq was figuring out when to exercise. When he’s home he is the in house parent, and cooking, grocery shopping, and shuttling kids around is not conducive to staying fit. My weight gain during his deployment when that was all my job is testament to that. So both of us have been trying harder in the past few months to make exercise and eating better a priority. In Ian’s case his weight and fitness level are literally part of his job as an Army Reservist, so when it’s not possible to make time for both of us to go to the Y his needs take precedence.
We try to head straight for the Y right after dropping the kids off at school, and there is just enough time before picking up Quinn from half day kindergarten for me to swim a mile and for Ian to get in a run on the treadmill and use the weight machines. In theory we should be getting out to exercise nearly every day, but things come up. There are early morning meetings with teachers, or one of the kids is sick, or there are dentist appointments, the frequent trips to Michigan aren’t helping…. There are a million reasons why getting in that little block of exercise time doesn’t happen because there just aren’t always enough hours in a day, but we’ve at least been able to make sure Ian can do some kind of exercise every day. He’s looking good and feeling better and I’m proud of him. He’s doing better than I am.
Aside from the exercise part of the equation there is food. I have more trouble than I’d like with food. Part of my struggle with watching what I eat is that I believe in family dinners. They are short, but they are nice, and I like that time together when we can share a meal and talk. But some days I shouldn’t have all the same things the kids are having. They don’t really seem to care or notice if I have vegetables on my spaghetti instead of meatballs, but I want to make it seem that we’re all sort of having the same thing. I don’t want to draw attention to the fact that Ian and I are eating differently. Not that I want to be deceptive, but girls in particular can develop body image issues so early anymore that I just don’t want it on their radar screen if it can be avoided. What they are eating is healthy and fine–for them. They can have a bagel. Most of the time, I shouldn’t.
So the other night we were having hamburgers and green beans and fruit and Ian and I decided we should have Boca Burgers for ourselves instead because the caloric content is significantly less. I was kind of hoping the kids wouldn’t notice, but Aden asked why dad’s burger looked different. He innocently said what for him was the truth, “I’d rather have what you’re having, but I’m eating this because I’m fat.”
I don’t normally think of myself as the kind of person who shoots her spouse a LOOK, but my head snapped toward him so fast he looked uncomfortable, and then I turned toward the girls and said, “We need to eat different things from you sometimes because we want to be healthy. You are still growing, but daddy and I aren’t, so sometimes we make other choices that are better for us.” Which seemed to work fine, and then the conversation turned to important things like lemurs and gym class and rice scooping work.
It’s funny the things you assume another person knows just because you are around each other. Simply because I’ve obsessed about a particular topic doesn’t mean it’s something my husband thinks about at all. How would he have any idea what my concerns for my kids and their potential body image issues are if I don’t discuss them? He wouldn’t.
It reminds me of a Women’s Studies class I took in college where on the first day we were asked to fill out a questionnaire that included the question: “What do you think about when you walk alone at night?” The few men in the class were completely mystified. They looked puzzled, and said, “What does this question mean? You think about whatever you think about.” And every woman in the class got wide-eyed and said, “You get to think about whatever you want?” We went on to explain that walking alone at night as a woman meant constantly monitoring who else was in the vicinity, which places were open that might be safe to run to, and being prepared to gouge someone in the eyes with our keys if necessary. Letting your mind completely wander meant putting yourself in danger. The men were stunned. But how would they know?
So for Ian, the word ‘fat’ is just a word. He certainly cares about being in good shape and thinks about the work it takes to get there and stay that way, but the word ‘fat’ is not used as a weapon in his world. It’s just a blunt description. For girls and women, it’s something else. Something as tricky to grapple with as walking alone at night. ‘Fat’ isn’t merely descriptive among women, it’s pejorative. It’s painful. It’s wrapped up more deeply than it has any right to be in our self-worth.
I explained to him later that I am very careful not to use the word ‘fat’ in front of the kids. When I go exercise I tell them it’s because I want to be healthy and strong. Yes, it will be great if I can fit into a smaller size more appropriate for my height at some point, but I want my kids to know that I’m glad to have a body that works. It’s good body, and I like it, even if it’s flabby in places. I don’t want to convey that I think of my body as disgusting. I let my kids poke my belly if it makes them giggle and I try to laugh about it too. There are days I’m depressed about how I look and wish I could magically fix it, but I don’t want my kids to see that. They love me. If they see me being overly critical of my body they will very likely start looking at their own bodies in a harsher light. The longer they can be spared from that the better.
I wish I didn’t struggle with my own body image as much as I do. Most days I think I do pretty well, because I do appreciate my health and my overall endurance. I don’t want to look like someone else, I just want to be a better version of myself. But it’s hard not to feel like a failure when something that matters so much seems out of my own control. I’m trying, though. I’m swimming my mile about two to six times a week depending on how much disruption there is to my schedule. My hopes for blogging while using my treadmill have been thwarted in the past couple of months by a bad knee which hurts if I walk on it too long, but I plan to get back to that as soon as I heal.
The struggle is frustrating, and I’m annoyed by the fact that it exists at all. It should not be this hard and it should not mean the myriad of things it seems to mean. When I wonder what’s wrong with me that I can’t just maintain the weight I should be, I remember that if someone like Oprah Winfrey who can afford to pay someone to do nothing but swat cookies out of her hand all day has the same problem, it’s not a simple problem, and I try not to hate myself for it. But it’s hard.
I look at my kids and their perfect little bodies and want them to not have to go through any of the ridiculous body image struggle I argue with myself about every day of my life. And when I say their bodies are perfect, I don’t mean that they are flawless, I mean that they are unique and strong and functional and I love every dimple and toe and freckle and there is nothing lacking or in need of change. Right now they seem to like the bodies they are in and I’m glad, because they are beautiful inside and out. Why is it so hard to see myself that way?